Updating Legacy SharePoint Customizations to the Add-in Model

If you follow this blog, you have probably read many of my posts through the years dedicated to the Add-in (formerly app) model for SharePoint 2013, 2016, and SharePoint Online. Microsoft introduced the Add-in model in SharePoint 2013 to address the various shortcomings associated with running custom code on the SharePoint server — most notably, of course, that custom code cannot be deployed to SharePoint Online in Office 365. SharePoint-hosted Add-ins are great for simple functionality that can be achieved with 100% client-side solutions (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript), while provider-hosted Add-ins allow you to run custom server-side code in Azure or anywhere other than the SharePoint server.

Using the Add-in model is a no-brainer for most new development efforts, especially if you are developing for SharePoint Online and still need to write server-side code. (At the time of this writing, the new SharePoint Framework is still in Developer Preview but is definitely worth adding to your repertoire for client-side SharePoint development in the years to come!)

But what about your existing solutions? Many organizations using SharePoint maintain large portfolios of custom code solutions that leverage different legacy development approaches advocated by Microsoft through the years, and most of the custom code developed for earlier versions of SharePoint cannot be directly migrated to the cloud. If your organization decided to move to the cloud tomorrow, where would you begin?

Taking inventory of your customizations

I have found that most legacy SharePoint customizations can be placed into the following categories:

  • User interface enhancements (master page, branding, themes, custom web parts)
  • Declarative items (XML for custom site columns, list instances, and content types)
  • Timer jobs (and other administrative extensions to the platform) running in SharePoint Central Administration on-premises

These customizations may take the form of farm or sandboxed solutions that depend on SharePoint’s legacy feature framework. In the case of some user interface customizations, custom HTML markup, CSS, or even JavaScript might be embedded directly within a site’s master page file. For the most part, these are situations we should try to avoid as much as possible when migrating our customizations to the cloud for the following reasons:

  • Farm solutions cannot be deployed to SharePoint Online.
  • Sandboxed solutions that contain managed code can no longer be deployed to SharePoint Online (note that sandboxed solutions contain a managed code assembly by default, even if the solution does not contain any managed code).
  • Custom master pages, while still supported in SharePoint Online, should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. (Microsoft has a history of making significant changes to the default master page in SharePoint Online, such as the addition of the app launcher/waffle/Hollywood Squares in the upper left corner. Sites with heavily customized master pages may not always have access to these changes as they are introduced in the future.)

The role of the Add-in model

When migrating these customizations, keep in mind that you will not necessarily be building and deploying a SharePoint Add-in to replace each customization. In fact, in many cases, you will simply be leveraging techniques from the Add-in model. These include paradigms that were introduced and/or popularized with the introduction of the Add-in model:

  • Using client-side script wherever possible
  • Remote provisioning of assets (everything from CSS/JavaScript files to site columns, content types, etc.) using the .NET Managed client object model (CSOM) or PowerShell
  • Running server-side code outside the SharePoint server that communicates with SharePoint via its APIs

In some cases, all you may need to do is build and deploy a “throwaway” provider-hosted Add-in within a local development environment that performs some one-time remote provisioning tasks, but is not intended to be accessed by end users and can be removed after its work is done.

Add-in model techniques enable us to make our SharePoint customizations with a “lighter touch.” By lighter touch, I am referring to a lighter footprint and/or impact on the SharePoint server. As we decrease the burden on the SharePoint server, we enable SharePoint to run more reliably and efficiently while also making it easier to administer and upgrade (at least on-premises…yes, these techniques all work on-prem as well!) To better explain this concept, I put together the table below contrasting legacy SharePoint development approaches with their modern lighter touch equivalents:

Legacy Approach Lighter Touch
Farm solutions with custom code running in the SharePoint IIS worker process Provider-hosted Add-in with custom code running outside of SharePoint
Farm or sandboxed solutions that deploy declarative artifacts such as site columns, content types, and list instances Remote provisioning these artifacts from a provider-hosted Add-in using CSOM
Custom master pages with embedded markup, styles, and script Remote provisioning of branding assets, embedding of JavaScript UI customizations using ScriptLink custom actions
Custom timer jobs running in Central Administration using the SharePoint server object model Remote timer jobs running as Windows scheduled tasks or Azure WebJobs using CSOM

SharePoint Developer PnP: here to help!

Because the Add-in model represents such a strong departure from the way things were done in the past with full-trust code in SharePoint, Microsoft started the SharePoint Developer Patterns and Practices (or PnP) initiative to assist developers with transforming their existing solutions to be cloud-ready as they migrate to SharePoint Online in Office 365.

The PnP team maintains several Github repositories that include reusable, production-ready components, templates, and solution starters that demonstrate the preferred modern approach to SharePoint development — making customizations with a lighter touch wherever possible.

Eric Overfield just published a great blog post detailing the PnP initiative and how you can get involved.

My Pluralsight course

If you are interested in learning more, I recently published a Pluralsight course with lots of demos: Updating Legacy SharePoint Customizations to the Add-in Model. The course covers the process of migrating a heavily customized on-premises SharePoint site to SharePoint Online from start to finish. The clip below is a demo from the course showing how a legacy timer job customization can be made cloud-ready with the help of the PnP Timer Job Framework and Azure WebJobs.


In this course, you will see me leverage the PnP Core Component to drastically simplify writing .NET Managed CSOM code. I also use several great samples and solution starters from the PnP team, all with the objective of easing the pain associated with migrating legacy SharePoint customizations to the Add-in model.